Tag Archives: foraging

Further Adventures in Olive Curing Plus a Fig Experiment

My mom and her friend have been bringing me free food.  I don’t like fresh figs but I love them dried.  Fresh figs are really expensive and I haven’t had access to any free ones to experiment with until now.  So I was excited to haul my dehydrator out of the shed.  First thing I discovered is that whole figs don’t fit in my dehydrator so I had to cut them in half.  Second thing I discovered is that figs take a lot less time to dry than I thought.  I over-dried mine.  They are now as hard as tree bark.  Ooops.  I wish I could get my hands on more to do a second trial with but I may  have to wait until next year.

I plan to soak these before using them.   I think I’ll make some fig bars with them at some point.

I am still shamefully lagging on my olive project.  Between big transitions at work that are requiring a lot of extra attention and all the stuff going on around the house – and my kitchen always being dirty – I have yet to get my olives in their second (stronger) brine.  The top of the brine has some mold growing on it.  Having experimented a little with fermenting things and reading all about it – I’m not worried about it.  But I do want to get to the next step.

My friend Sharon who is learning to cure olives with me already has had hers in the second brined for two weeks with flavorings.  I got to try some at her house the other day and I’m pleased to report that they were really good!  I want mine to be saltier than hers are – but they had a really nice flavor and the texture was perfect.  So this method of curing can definitely get you good results.  We’ll see how mine come out in another few weeks I guess.

Walnut season is done.  DONE.  And I felt sad about it the way all you strange sun loving people get sad when summer is over and the air changes.  Two weeks is as long as walnuts were dropping.  I foraged a total of 15 lbs and 1 little oz of them.  I’m really happy to say that my mom’s friend who brought me figs also brought me a big bag of walnuts!  So now I have a more respectable haul.

Here’s the jar of pickled habanero peppers that I’ll be giving to my sister’s close friend Emily.  I’ve known Emily for a long time and now she’s a grown lady with a husband and two kids.  She and her husband like super hot peppers.  I don’t but I couldn’t resist pickling some of these because of their beauty.

I’m trying to menu plan now.  I’m not doing a very good job of it.  Here’s what I plan to make during the following week.

Menu “Plan” for the Week of 11/12/12:

  • Lentil soup  (done!)
  • Stuffed pasillo peppers – stuffed with seasoned tofu and baked in a cashew cream sauce served with Mexican brown rice.
  • Baked potatoes.  What?  You have to have something easy.
  • Salad(s) with apples and walnuts, feta, and dried cranberries.
  • Kashmiri-style eggplant in yogurt

I just got what might be the last three eggplants grown by Imwalle Gardens.  That means epplant is OVER.  I don’t buy them out of season so when you can’t get them locally grown any more it means no more for a long time.  I have wanted to make this eggplant dish for a long time but it requires you to shallow fry the eggplant – I’m not big on frying and I could probably broil them but I want my first time trying this dish to be as rich as the recipe is – because the last time you eat fresh eggplant for a year deserves to be special.

The stuffed peppers is a vegan dish I have been wanting to experiment with.  I haven’t ever tried such a thing and I don’t have any recipe for it.  I do have a recipe for the cashew cream sauce.  My friend Sid made the most amazing spaghetti squash dish that was like a lasagna with layers of squash, marinara sauce, tofu, and then topped with a cashew bechamel.  The bechamel was wonderful!  So it’s time to play with creamy vegan sauces.

What are you cooking this week?

How (not) to Cure Olives with Lye

I have wanted to try curing olives for a long time.  Moving back to California where olives are planted all over the place as landscape trees and finding actual clear instructions for curing them (not a lot of information could be found 12 years ago) meant it was time to forage for olives and play with lye.  If you want to play with olives too – always use a source who has lots of personal experience SUCCESSFULLY curing olives.  I recommend Hank Shaw’s instructions for Curing Olives with Lye.  I am writing this post merely to illustrate what NOT to do.

  • The first thing you need to do is pick through your olives and remove any bruised or bitten ones.  What likes to bite into a tongue-numbingly bitter fruit?  Olive fly.  Also remove any blushed olives.  You only want really hard green ones.

I removed all olives with olive fly holes in them and all the bruised ones but I couldn’t bear to remove all the blushed ones.  Which are now an unbecoming shade of grey.

  • Put very cold water in a non-aluminum container.  Put on gloves and safety glasses.  Measure your lye with a non-aluminum measuring device and add it to the cold water.  Stir it up with a non-aluminum spoon.  Now weight the olives down because if the olives are exposed to air while curing they will darken.

This, my friends, is the trickiest part of the whole process: keeping those suckers submerged.  I suggest figuring out what works BEFORE you mix up your lye and mess up your olives.  Even if you think you have a system that works – it might not.  Do not weigh your olives down with anything aluminum.  By now you may have noticed that aluminum should have nothing to do with your lye curing project.  Lye + contact with aluminum = poison.

I had two batches of olives to cure.  So I had two stainless steel pots.  Pickling crocks would work way better.  I haven’t got any pickling crocks because they are so flippin’ expensive.  What’s up with that?!  One of my pots worked pretty well because a smaller lid fit perfectly inside it without letting any of the loose olives float to the top.  But the other pot?  Nothing fit well in it.  I finally found a ceramic pie weight that almost fit.  I got it so the olives weren’t quite able to float up around it to the top.  I walked away for one hour.  ONE hour.

And all of the olives had managed to get around the small space at the sides of the weight like crafty little bastards and were floating at the top.  I think “dicolored” is so gentle sounding.  They were RUDELY discolored.  Check it out:

Angry orange-ish red.

And blackened.  Needless to say I had to throw half of this batch out.  Even if the discoloration wouldn’t have rendered them technically inedible – would you eat that?

Hank has a solution mentioned in his instructions and if I had been smart I would have tried this to begin with.  Tie the olives up in cheese cloth (but make sure the olives are pretty loose inside so liquid can flow freely between them).  Then your weight doesn’t have to match the circumference of your container precisely.  Worked like a charm.  So if you don’t have the perfect container and plate or lid situation: listen to Hank.


  • Let the olives soak in the lye for 12 hours.  No need for more.  This is the perfect amount of time to leach out the bitterness and preserve flavor.

I left mine in for 21 hours.  Because to take them out at 12 hours would have required me to be showered and dressed by 8am with a clean enough kitchen to be dealing with lye and olives.  I think I might have gotten dressed around 11am but then I had to clean the kitchen and then some other random bullshit came up and I didn’t get the olives out of the lye until 1pm.

This is what you’ll see at 21 hours.  The water/lye solution will be a reddish color.  Kind of like deadly punch.

  • Drain the lye solution out and then rinse the olives.  Next you fill your container with water, covering them, and weigh them down again, they can still discolor. You want to rinse the olives and replace the water 3-4 times a day for 2 to 4 days (until the lye is completely rinsed out).

Or if you’re me: 2 times a day for the first 2 days and then once a day for the next 9 days.  Because I am lazy.  And I forget about them.  If you did it like you were supposed to then in 2-4 days your olives will be ready for the next step.  How do you know they’re ready?  The water will look clean when the lye is completely rinsed out of the olives.  How do you make sure the lye is all out?  You  bite into an olive, if it’s soapy tasting then they need more soaking and rinsing.  And no, you won’t get sickened or die if there’s a little lye in your olive at this point.  There’s very little and it’s no longer caustic.  Trust me, I did it.

Lye is in traditional soap.  So the olives will be foamy and slippery like you’ve just slathered them up with some soap.  Because that’s essentially what you’ve done.  See the discoloration of the water in that picture above?

Now there is no discoloration.

The next step after all the soaking and rinsing in plain water is brining the olives.  I just did that last night with my first two batches while putting a whole new crop of olives in lye with a much better container this time.  But as per my usual way of doing things – I picked some olives 9 days ago that only got into the lye last night along with some olives I picked fresh yesterday*.  So I’ll be able to report to you if curing olives that have been off the tree languishing on a warm sunny project table are worth bothering with.

Next up: brining and flavoring the olives Angelina-style.

*I tied up the old ones and new ones separately in cheese cloth so they don’t mix together.  I am very scientific.

Foraging for Walnuts Brings Me Back to the Beginning

I’ve been foraging for blackberries my whole life.  I also remember picking gooseberries on Mount Shasta when I was a small child.  I used to find and eat miner’s grass and also sour grass.  Things I learned from my mom.  But it wasn’t until I moved to the JC neighborhood in Santa Rosa that I really became a forager in earnest.  I rediscovered my love of picking wild blackberries and the first year in Santa Rosa my friend Sharon and I learned to make blackberry jam together which started my love of food preserving.  I was taking classes at the Junior College and walked to school from my house early in the morning for math class.  After the first storm that year I noticed walnuts on the ground.

I know a walnut when I see one.  Who doesn’t?  The Stemples had several walnut trees in their back yard and they always had huge bags of walnuts in their mud room.  The truth is – I never really liked walnuts.  They were “okay”.  I’d eat them if someone put them in baked goods but I always wished people would stop putting walnuts in their cookies because I thought it ruined them.  When I first saw the walnuts on the ground I wasn’t that excited about them but I was curious to know if all walnuts are edible and if you could eat them fresh out of the shell or did you have to do something to them?  I picked up a few and carried them around with me.  Eventually I ate one of them and didn’t get sick.

The walnuts were all over the ground and I started picking them up as I walked, filling my backpack with them.  I still didn’t really like them but I couldn’t resist collecting them.  Something clicked (I think it’s called OCD) and the repetitive activity of collecting nuts and hoarding them in my garage was soothing and fun and addictive.  So I ended up with an enormous quantity of them.  All picked up from my neighborhood streets.  It was free food.  Food I didn’t like, of course, but FREE.  And satisfying to collect.

Eventually I had to force myself to stop.  A person who doesn’t like walnuts doesn’t need a year’s supply of them.  I decided to try eating them in different ways to see if I really didn’t like them.  What I discovered is that I really dislike walnuts in baked goods.  Period.  I won’t shun your gift of banana bread with walnuts in it, but only because I’m used to my mom baking nuts in everything and I’m pretty polite about gifts.  But I’ll wish you hadn’t polluted your banana bread with walnuts.  I tried walnuts in other ways and discovered that I love them lightly roasted and put on salads.  When you do that they remain crisp.  To me – an uncrisp nut is an abomination.  I also discovered that I love candied walnuts – just to eat out of hand or on a pear salad.  Deborah Madison introduced me to walnut sauce and it is one of my favorite sauces in the world.  It’s creamy and rich and wonderful.  I make it very smooth – no grit.

Every year for 5 years I collected a year’s supply of walnuts and ate them all.  I was lucky that when I lived in Oregon a dear friend of mine had access to free walnuts and gave me tons of them because there weren’t a lot to forage in McMinnville.  But I missed foraging for them myself.  I missed the yearly activity that signaled deep fall.  They nearly always start falling after the first real rainstorm.  Which we just had a few days ago.  While foraging for olives with my friend Sharon she mentioned that she was finding walnuts on the ground and I very nearly dropped the olive project to go collect nuts.

Instead I stuffed down the panicky feeling that I would miss my chance to gather nuts and hoard them in my tree trunk… and waited one whole day to go out looking for them.  Yesterday Chick and I walked to my old favorite walnut trees and I gathered a bag full.  Many of them are smaller than I like but will still be good.  Chick didn’t think much of the walnut collecting.  She would much rather forage for poop.  Still, she did her best imitation of a patient dog and I felt right again.  Like time is flowing in the right direction after being stopped for years.  I know I keep saying shit like this – but it’s true.  This is where it truly started for me and to walk the same path I’ve walked year after year to the same trees, trees that I’ve come to think of as quiet personal companions, it makes me feel like I just found something that’s been lost.  It feels wonderful.  It feels peaceful and makes me happy.

Once you get into the foraging mode it’s impossible not to see food all around you.  Or to wonder about things that MIGHT be edible.  To someone.  This old cactus in our neighborhood caught my eye yesterday as it has caught my eye every time I’ve walked by it in the last 12 years.  But this time I saw it differently.

Are those “prickly pears”?  Can you make jam out of those?  And is this the kind of cactus you can make nopalitos from?  CAN I EAT THIS CACTUS?

I wouldn’t dream of trying to take any part of it because it is a masterpiece in this yard – it is clearly not food hanging over the sidewalk waiting to be plucked at by strangers.  Taking any part of this plant would be grand and mean theft.  But it amuses me how you look at things differently after years of foraging.

Cheers to my fellow foragers out there!

Things I’ve foraged for so far:


gooseberries (only the once but it was memorable)

miner’s lettuce

sour grass






hazelnuts (for others, I hate hazelnuts)

Indian plum (my friend Nicole introduced me and Max to it – it’s a leaf that tastes like a cucumber)

mushrooms (not very successfully – I did find an old bolete, an old chanterelle, and Philip and Max found me a lobster mushroom)

Food for the Poorest Bird

My lace-cap hydrangea, lilacs, and Japanese Snowball have become tangled with over-eager brambles that reach for bare feet, crawl across our porch, and spread out into our lawn.  It became this Medusa mess through neglect.  While the pages of my novel grew, so did the strength and ambition of the brambles encircling my house that I didn’t have time to uproot or even cut back.  I will admit that the branch-thick canes are mean to step on and I do sometimes worry I might wake up one morning unable to leave my own house like some sucker in a fairy tale.

Then the canes clothe themselves in blossoms, the shower of petals in late spring is like a bridal explosion, and just when I remember that I’m supposed to be cutting them back or digging them up the sprays of green berries swell and hang heavily with clean pure food and I am reduced to a quiet humility.  After all, I invade and take over everywhere I go too but I don’t feed birds and insects and bears and people as I sprawl.  All the scratches and the encroachments are forgiven as I pick fat black berries and eat them warm and lazy.

When I came home from my trip the berries which were (I thought) still hard and green when I left had become luscious and sweet and there were so many of them ripened already that I could dream up a dozen possibilities of what to make with them all while I ate them by the cupful.  I decided to make some jam and my mother requested a dessert be made with some because she doesn’t love jam.  I started picking them yesterday and every year it’s almost the same meditation – the abundance all around us and the abundance we kill off with round up and mowers.  I know we all need some space not over-run with blackberry hedges and in no way blame people for wanting to tame them better than I do, but to name such a generous plant as a noxious weed seems like awfully rich behavior coming from such a poor nation.

I am not rich in money and I’m not, according to all the tarot readings I’ve ever gotten, likely to ever be rich with silver or gold or even the things that stand in for them.  I might lose my home soon.  Like so many people, we’re hanging on.  I was able to take my trip for which I’m deeply grateful.  But not more than I’m grateful to the blackberries choking my porch.  I’ve got six jars of jam, I’ve eaten at least a quart all on my own fresh, and tonight we had blackberry buckle.  All of this food was free to me.  I spent no money watering them or buying them or fertilizing them.  They ask for nothing and give me pounds of organic free fruit.  I know it’s not like having a heifer to butcher up.  I know it’s not like winning the grocery store sweepstakes.  I know it isn’t the same as having a field of wheat or rice.

I don’t care.  It’s my secret joy to see blackberries taking over factory yards, neglected fields, rising up on the banks of rivers, and edging so many miles of blacktop.  I feel connected to blackberries in a way I am connected with no other fruit or food.  They’re scrappy, surviving in a hard-scrabble world; thriving in nutrient starved hard ground producing from this barrenness a rich sweet juicy tempting fruit with the most delicate fragile perfume.

While I picked the fruit of my neglect I thought about hunger and starvation.  I thought about people ripping out brambles to plant more lawns.  I thought about the kind of values that are reflected in our tendency to loath the messiness of food in a landscape.  I thought about all those people in the J.C. neighborhood in Santa Rosa who complained about the horrible messes the walnuts made on the streets.  I collected them every year.  The whole time I lived there I never bought a single walnut in the store.  So many people in our neighborhood bought walnuts when they were literally dropping from the sky into our hands.  They weren’t just any walnuts- they were high quality large walnuts with a truly fine flavor.  Before foraging for those nuts I was ambivalent about walnuts.  I didn’t hate them but I didn’t especially love them either.  The squirrels, birds, Sharon, and I looked forward to gathering those nuts every year.  Food falling from the sky.  Free food showering the streets and all anyone can say is “They make a damn big mess.  I hate ’em!”

I’ve never lived on the streets.  I’ve never gone long enough without food to be truly deeply desperately hungry but I’ve been hungry.  I’ve had nothing but butter in my fridge on more than one occasion.  I’ve lived on potatoes and butter at times.  I know what it is to not have an abundance of food.  I don’t think you have to half starve to death to appreciate having food but why do so many people not collect the walnuts and blackberries?  Why are they called a nuisance?  I know so many people who plant “ornamental” pears and apples.  I know they’re pretty but there’s so much hunger in the world, if you’re going to plant a tree that could potentially feed you or your community – why choose a sterile empty one?

Is food such a mess that we have come to reject it if it means we have to exert ourselves at all to collect it?  There is such malnutrition and hunger in the world and yet even poor people aren’t collecting blackberries from the miles of thriving fruiting fragrant bushes.  Even poor people don’t seem to value free food unless it’s picked for them and handed to them in a bag.

While I picked 9 cups of berries from my choked porch I felt lucky.  I felt rich.  I thought that even if I lost my home, even if I became literally homeless, in Oregon I would not starve to death in August because of this generous noxious impolite weed.  There is enough here for the insects, the birds, the small rodents, the big bears, and me.  In some way I felt myself break down a little.  It happens every year when I’m picking food and realize all over again how small I am on the big map of the universe.  I am nothing.  My insignificance is colossal.

When we spend so much of our time building ourselves up, trying to become more than we started out, striving so hard to achieve things we dreamt up on quiet buzzing summer afternoons when we were children looking at the world of possibilities like it was one enormous frosted cake and all we had to do was point at the slice we wanted and it would be so.  When we spend all this time reaching and growing it’s easy to forget how unimportant each of us is as an individual.  Our legacy as a collective is so much bigger than each of us separately.  It is good to be humbled.  To become small.  It isn’t at all the same as being humiliated or being made to be invisible or not count.  Being brought to a place of humility is about embracing everything outside yourself.  It’s about acknowledging that every bite of food we get is a grace in our life.  It’s about your body being nothing more than a corporeal bookmark of who you are in this world.  You can’t take your body with you.  It doesn’t matter if you believe in heaven and hell, reincarnation, or neither- your body is a reflection of who you are but it isn’t going to go with you when you’re gone.  So you have now.  You have this minute and when you’re in a state of humility you are no more important than the bees and the frogs but you matter just as much as they do.  Everything belongs.  Everyone belongs.

My spirit is a field of blackberries growing in bankrupt soil producing from nothing a rich harvest of food for the poorest bird.